Can we break the glass ceiling dividing community action and government action?
On the second day of the 2020 UN-Habitat World Urban Forum, I have sensed a divide between the actions of governments in the formal sphere and the scope for empowered communiies to make a difference on key issues such as adapting to the climate emergency or challenges of inequalities betwwen neighbourhoods. But also it is possible to see ways in which the divisions might be overcome.
My main activity today was to be on a panel for the event organised by the Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities project. I have written about this project before on my website, most recently in October 2019. As I outlined, a key feature of the research is that it looks at national, city and neighbourhood aspects of sustainable cities, and enables comparisons between the situations of neighbourhoods in large and small ciities, both within a country but also between countries. It is this multi-scalar comparison that has the potential to provide signifiicant insights into how place, politics and cultures shape lives and life opportunities. So often we deal in aggregate data at higher scales, but such averages can conceal significant variations at a finer level of detail. The research teams are currently starting their neighbourhood level surverys, so it is too soon to anticipate results. However, over the next couple of years the project should give us findings that can be of practical value.
Disasters, Poverty and Resilience
In 2016 the World Bank calculated that each year 26 million people are pushed into poverty by natural disasters. This relates to a point I made in yesterday’s blog, about the importance of understanding risks when setting policies for affordable housing. So how can this situation be turned around. The Bank has identified a number of reasons why it happens. Thse include lack of capacity, lack of tools and guidance tailored to local contexts, lack of funding and poor engagement with stakeholders. As we know it is the poor and vulnerable who are most at risk from climate emergency induced disasters, of which there will be more in future. So action is needed to support such groups. However, since planning and infrastructure are important for effective mitigation and adaptation, the local communities need to interface with formal tiers of government. Those same governments at city, region or national level are unlikely to have a good understanding of the local context and conditions in vulnerable neighbourhoods.
Tackling the Refugee Crisis in Sudan
I visited the Sudan stand in the exhibition and it revealed some of these tensions but also gave some hope. The country faces numerous challenges. Expectation of hotter temperatures in an arid land threatens food insecurity, though already malnutrition is acute and chronic. A recent history of armed conflicts has created refugees, many of which live in appalling conditions. The government has top-down goals with worthy aspirations to improve housing and livelihoods, but these look detached from realities on the ground. However, UN-Habitat has introduced stabilised soil block technology to help the poor reconstruct housing, markets and public buildings. The blocks are manufactured from mud and soil mixed with a stabiliser such as cement (though using much less cement and water than for more conventional blocks). The technology allows a quick and affordable way to tackle urgent need and opens the way for vocational training and improved livelihoods.
In short policies at higher levels of government need to engage directly with communities and neighbourhoods if they are to work effectively. The climate emergency makes this even more necessary, but in many parts of the world governments struggle to look beyond the formal sectors, and therefore primarily serve the better off. We need data, research, but above all to recruit and train people able to work across the divide that separates government agencies from vulnerable communities. Time is not on our side.
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